The African Palestinian Connection
By Rami Nashashibi
IMAN Executive Director and Co-Founder
Sociology/ University of Chicago
Nestled amid the windy and ancient streets of Jerusalem’s Old City and on the way towards one of the busier doors leading into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the African Palestinian Community may slip past the mosque-bound passerby. For those who do take notice; a red, black and green map of the African continent with a superimposed map of Palestine containing the Dome of the Rock at its center would greet them as the proud insignia of the Palestinian African Community Center. The insignia emphasizes the community‘s triple heritage: African, Palestinian and Muslim. Unfortunately, the often over-looked center parallels the missed connections that most people make when thinking about the tremendously intertwined African and Palestinian legacies. No where is this connection more apparent then among the Palestinian Africans who are spread across Gaza and the West Bank. Within Jerusalem’s Old City, this community resides within 50 feet of the Aqsa Compound, which is often where the young children spend their cool summer evenings playing a game of soccer or taking a stroll.
Inside the center groups of young Palestinians are laughing and joking with one another as I walk in. The youth range in complexion from the more typical Palestinian earthy tan to a darker Sub-Saharan African brown.
This last summer I returned to Jerusalem, my late father’s birthplace and the city within which his family has deep roots, to visit the grave of my grandmother who had recently passed and to conduct a set of interviews with young Palestinians across the West Bank. Throughout my stay, I spent most of my free time around the Al-Aqsa Compound and with the Palestinian Africans, learning more about their history and lives.
Currently some forty African Palestinian families live inside the old city, many of whom reside within 50 feet of the center. Upon talking with Adam, the center’s young director, one gets a sense of how proud the community is of its identity. “Many of our ancestors were pious Muslims who came from across Africa to defend Al-Aqsa from military conquest,” I was told by Adam and others in the center. “They stayed and married and their children grew up here. “We are as Palestinian as anyone else but we also remember and our proud of where are great grandfathers came from and sometimes visit or stay in touch with our other family members in Africa.” Aside from the various wars which brought Muslims from Africa to safeguard the sanctity of its Muslim Holy Sites, other Africans settled in Palestine after spiritual pilgrimages to the land’s various holy sites, including of course the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Many Palestinian Africans have heroically managed to retain their presence in this incredibly important and highly symbolic space even while the oppressive closure policies of the Israelis makes life increasingly difficult in all kinds of ways. “They don’t want us to live,” said one of the community leaders. “They go around telling the world that we are savages and want to kill them all. This is ridiculous. Here I am telling you that I am Muslim, Palestinian and African and I have no problem living peacefully with the Jewish community and I condemn suicide bombings. But these people don’t even give us a chance. They make life impossible because they want us to leave Jerusalem but we will never leave. We will die here before we leave.” The sprawling growth of Israeli settler housing outside and within Jerusalem’s Old City seems to be in line with a policy that the city’s old Israeli mayor ten years ago dubbed as the “Judaization of Jerusalem.” The harsh realities of a population under military occupation punctuate the daily lives of these Palestinians who are often cut off from being visited or supported by Palestinians elsewhere in the West Bank or Gaza. Many of the first and second generation leaders of this community like most Palestinians have spent considerable time languishing in Israeli jails for offenses as minor as being rumored to have been at a protest.
In spite of the hardship, one finds a tremendously warm and hospitable environment among the young and old in this tightly knit community. The Palestinian African Community Center is one of the most active centers in the Old City and has multiple youth programs going on throughout the year. The center founders are very active in broader civic affairs of the Palestinians and often serve as alternative tour guides to the city. They take great pride is saying that they were visited by Imam W.D. Mohammed and other African American Muslims in the late 90s. Yet beyond just the Muslims the leaders from this community are attempting to reach out to all people of African heritage as a way to find ways to connect their often isolated communities. As evidence of such connections, they have formed a creative and dynamic relationship with African American Hebrew Israelities who migrated to Israel from places like Chicago under the leadership of Ben Yameen.
I have asked the members of the community if they experienced racism within larger Palestinian society. Some of the older members of the community talked to me about how issues of skin color would come up when a darker African Palestinian would try to marry a lighter Palestinian woman. As one older member of the community told me: “I know they wanted to say no because of my skin color but their daughter, whose is now my wife, was insistent that as Muslims they had no right to deny me.” For younger generations within the community there have been enough marriages between Palestinians of African descent and the larger community to make this less of an issue.
As an American Muslim who has spent more than a decade organizing or living on Chicago’s South Side, I can’t help but feel that the larger Palestinian American community has not celebrated the African part of our identity in the way that we should. Failing to do this has prevented segments of the Palestinian community from making more of a connection to the African American legacy and its struggles against institutionalized racism and white supremacy. Making that connection is imperative, particularly during opportune moments like Black History Month. Most African Americans residing in urban communities only interact with Palestinians through the presence of liquor stores or other exploitative businesses and a growing number of community activists have emerged as increasingly resentful of their presence. By embracing and celebrating their own African heritage during Black History Month, Palestinian and other Arab Muslims may grow to make more meaningful connections to the larger African American community, its rich legacy and its on-going struggles.